Thesis Defense as a Model for Project Assessment

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My grand experiment continues. I am attempting to isolate and identify methanotrophic microbes that I believe to be present in Olathe municipal water sources, with a focus on Indian Creek which runs near our high school. That’s not my grand experiment (it’s actually a pretty mundane and simple experiment, despite what my time investment tells you). The meta-experiment is my attempt to tackle this research question by establishing a lab group that operates like a university research lab but uses secondary students as the experimental contributors. The first participants were all AP Biology graduates, but the program is now comprised of students of all grade levels and science tracks.

AP biology-concurrent student preparing for staining procedures.
AP biology-concurrent student preparing for staining procedures.
Students pictured:  AP bio grads, underclassmen on honors track, and upperclassman on vo-tech track. Lots of backgrounds.
Students pictured: AP bio grads, underclassmen on honors track, and upperclassman on vo-tech track. Lots of backgrounds.

My social science experiment has made exciting progress this year because we now have a dedicated class period for all of them to enroll and work together. Before this year all participating students had to work as independent study students flung across all of my other class periods. My attention was always divided and communication between students was very difficult. I’ve been forced to make some decisions about how to grade this class while not destroying the free-form and independent nature of the program that has led to its success so far. I decided to draw from our model again; graduate students defend their work before a panel of their superiors, so we will attempt to do the same.

The full defense format overview document is attached at the end of this post, but the upshot is students were given six minutes to present their work for the semester. Their presentations were followed by 9 minutes of Q&A from a 6 person panel:

  • The program principal investigator – me
  • A practicing scientist – this semester this chair was filled by a GK-12 fellow familiar with our program
  • A building administrator – all available assistant principals and the principal sat for 1 or 2 sessions each
  • USD233 science coordinator – the district K-12 science coordinator
  • Project alum – a graduate of the program returned to sit the panels. He currently is attending Baker University
  • Student’s seat – Each student was asked to fill the final seat with any adult. Most chose a parent, but not all.
Sadly I was too busy through most of the session to remember to take pictures...
Sadly I was too busy through most of the sessions to remember to take pictures…

The sessions were amazing. The students got really serious about the presentations, and the presence of administration convinced them that their time and effort in the program mattered. They created the presentations and performed internal peer review of the sessions. We then reserved the conference room a week early and did a dress rehearsal, in which they were brutal to each other (in a good way). They did additional revisions, and then they organized a students-only additional dress rehearsal again the following week. Every student gave a strong presentation, including students that struggle with one-on-one communication let alone public speaking.

An underclassmen presenting his cell morphology analysis.
A general-track underclassman presenting his cell morphology analysis.

This was a great experience for all the students, and for many of them it was the first presentation they’d ever given about which they really cared. The focus on Q&A caused them to focus on understanding their own work, rather than making a dense PowerPoint as a crutch. I’m hopeful that it will provide some of my students for whom communication is a challenge the experience and skills needed to be able to effectively prepare for job interviews and presentations they’ll have later in life. What I can definitely tell you now is everyone involved had an incredibly positive experience. It’s quite a feeling to drop off thank you notes to administrators and get to stand and listen to them bubble about trying to ask a meaningful question in these complex but engaging presentations.

If you’d like to learn more about my research group, check out our public page here. It will be updated with this year’s independent projects in January.

Biotechnology Defense Panel Overview

CDC Science Ambassador Training – now accepting applications

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2015 Come to Teacher Training at CDC!At the Fall KABT Conference, I spoke about my AMAZING experience at the CDC last July.

The application process has been opened up for the 2015 Science Ambassadors.  I encourage you to apply!  Please see the information below and/or distribute the atGroup Picture_CDC Signtached pdf among your collegues:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) invites middle- and high-school teachers to attend the 2015 CDC Science Ambassador Workshop. The free* 5-day professional development workshop focuses on training teachers to use examples from public health to illustrate basic math and science principals and concepts in the classroom. The Workskhop will be held from July 20-24 at CDC headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia.

Throughout the week, CDC scientists present information on current public health topics and collaborate with participants to develop challenging and innovative public health-based lesson plans that align with Next Generation Science Standards. As part of the 2015 Science Ambassador Workshop, participants will have the opportunity to:

  • Attend seminars on current public health topics presented by CDC scientists
  • Collaborate with CDC scientists to develop lessons plans based on public health science topics that will be published on CDC’s website
  • Tour CDC’s state-of-the-art headquarters, including the Emergency Operations Center and the David J. Sencer CDC Museum
  • Earn 4.0 Continuing Education Units (CEUs)
  • Expand professional networks

To be considered for participation, please e-mail the following materials to by April 15, 2015:

  • Curriculum vitae or résumé
  • Recommendation letter from your school’s principal, department chair, or a colleague.
  • Personal statement (500 words or less) explaining your interest in the workshop, your expectations of the workshop, and how the workshop aligns with your teaching goals

*There is no charge for this workshop but participants are responsible for their own transportation, lodging and meals.

If you have any questions about this workshop or any of our other materials or activities, please visit the website at: and/or to contact us by e-mail at Come to Teacher Training at CDC!

2015 KABT Winter Board Meeting

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What: 2015 KABT Winter Board Meeting.

When: Saturday, January 17th, 2015 from 9am-3pm.

Where: Noah Busch’s house (4513 Nature Ave. Manhattan, KS 66502).

Who: This is a meeting of the KABT executive council (see below), but any/all KABT members are welcome.

Note: Traditionally, attendees bring a food item to be included in a pot-luck lunch. There is a similar post on the KABT FB page.  Commenting on the FB post with your food item will also count as a RSVP! I look forward to seeing everyone in January!

Executive Council: President: Noah Busch, President-Elect: Drew Ising, Vice President: Kelley Tuel, Secretary: Kelly Kluthe, Treasurer: Michael Ralph, Region 1 Rep: Jenna Shepherd, Region 2 Rep: Pat Lamb, Region 3 Rep: Eric Kessler, Region 4 Rep: Jesi Rhodes, At-Large Reps: Lisa Volland, Craig Ackerman, Chris Ollig, & Camden Burton, Past-President: Julie Schwarting, Web-Master: Brad Williamson, & Historian: Stan Roth.

VOTE (Dancing, not politics)

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[Note: At this time, voting is no longer active. The videos are available in a playlist below, and you can read more about the assignment in the original blog post.]

Exercise your right to vote! Your unique skill set as science teachers makes you the perfect voters. You can help decide which group does the best job of dancing their energy reaction. Is it photosynthesis? Aerobic cellular respiration? Maybe fermentation? Help out my AP Biology students and vote for your favorite dances.

Vote here (Google Acct needed):

Thank you for your time and help!    [VOTING IS NO LONGER ACTIVE AT THIS TIME.]

Want to know more about this assignment? Check out the blog post here:

An Alternative Method for Assessing Student Understanding?

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In my experience, students have the some difficulty in understanding things in Biology which are not easily observable. When you mix in heavy doses of chemistry and a fair amount of process-specific vocabulary, cellular energetics may be the most challenging of all the topics I cover on a regular basis. With the NGSS an increased emphasis is placed on knowing the overall purpose of the systems and their inputs and products, but I still always struggle with what is important for students to know, and how best to get them to retain that information. There are some great labs available using leaf disks and probes, and there are always notes, repetition and memorization of course. But you still run into the same issue… students have to accept that things are working the way that you tell them that they should. And while it isn’t feasible on a normal high school budget to visualize the cellular processes that are occurring in the energy reactions, there is another option: role-playing.

I was trolling the internet one day, looking for a better alternative to showing my students some “interactive” PowerPoint slides, when I remembered a competition I tried to peer pressure my wife into entering, Dance Your PhD. A quick Google search, provided me with the catalyst that I needed for my favorite day of the first semester, and my favorite TED talk yet.

[Full Disclosure: I don’t care for PPT or really any slideshow program. Loathe may be too strong a word, but it isn’t far from the mark. All the work/learning is being done by the person that made the presentation… but that isn’t necessarily relevant right now…]

As someone that avoids PowerPoint whenever possible, this post made my heart grow a Grinch-like three sizes. There is a part in there when he mentions that the more his friend tried to explain an experiment to him, the further he got from understanding. I’m not too proud to admit that it happens to me at least twice a week. I felt like this was a chance for me to get my students to better understand a complicated biochemical process, have an enjoyable time, and not sit around watching me talk about a presentation that I did all the comprehension-building research to put together. Students still would have to learn the content, but now they would be doing so using several modalities.  Further, as teachers, we know that you learn best when you have to apply knowledge and communicate it to others. When you have to do this without words, it makes the task all the more difficult. A difficult, uncomfortable tasks are the breeding ground of lasting learning.

So as we approach our unit test on Energetics, my AP Biology classes have engaged in a competition to see who can best demonstrate the reaction assigned to them.  In order to win, they’ll need votes. Please visit my other post, watch their dances, and vote. After you’ve finished, drop me a comment with your thoughts. I can’t wait to hear what you have to say. And when my students take their unit test, nobody had better mess up the purpose of an electron transport chain!

Bring Evolution To Your School/Community For Darwin Day 2015!

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Interested in bringing cutting-edge evolutionary science to your school and community?  Apply to be a stop on NESCent’s 2015 Darwin Day Roadshow.

NESCent (The National Evolutionary Synthesis Center) is an NSF-funded evolution research center.  To celebrate Charles Darwin’s contributions to science and society, we send our scientists on the road every year around “Darwin Day” (the annual, world-wide celebration of Darwin’s birthday on Feb. 12th) to talk to students, teachers and the general public about their research and career opportunities in science.  Our focus is on small, rural communities (i.e., places that wouldn’t likely have a Darwin Day celebration if they weren’t a stop on our Roadshow) and any schools with traditionally under-served students.  There is no cost to you, the teachers, and we’ll even leave you with a collection of evolution teaching resources!

For more information, and to apply to have your school considered, please visit or contact Jory Weintraub (jory at nescent dot org).  Applications are being accepted now through Friday, November 21st.

CBTA Workshop: Statistics in Biology

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CBTA Workshop:  Statistics in Biology

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Fairview High School      Boulder, CO

Do your students understand the role of statistics and error analysis?

Can they select and use the appropriate statistical test to evaluate data?

Are you confident in your ability to teach and evaluate these skills?

Register now! to join CBTA’s Paul Strode, co-author of the HHMI Teacher Guide: Mathematics and Statistics in Biology, for a day of hands-on practice with statistical data and error analysis! In this workshop for MS, HS and College science teachers, we’ll collect data from several familiar lab activities and analyze the data using statistical tools such as:

  • Mean, Variance, Standard Deviation and 95% Confidence Intervals
  • T-Tests
  • Regression Analysis
  • Chi-Square

Cost: $10.00 CBTA Members, $15.00 non-Members

Light continental breakfast and lunch provided

Free Resources!

0.5 Adams State graduate credit available (additional fee)

CDE Recertification Certificate provided

 Register at

 Sponsored by the Colorado Biology Teachers’ Association and HHMI

Questions? Contact Cindy Gay at

Spinach Chloroplasts

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I was pondering how to get a good look at plant cells with low cost, and I thought about Brad’s work with onion root tips in visualizing mitotic cells. Check out his original post here. The thought occurred to me that the fixative should dissolve inter-cellular connections in leaf tissue the same as root tissue, so I gave a section of grocery store spinach tissue the same 6 minute warm fixative bath. The tissue flattened nicely (more or less), but I couldn’t see much in the way of cell definition. Sticking with the theme, I grabbed the aceto-orcein stain because it was already handy. Here’s what I saw:

Spinach Cells - Aceto-orcein stain
Spinach Cells – Aceto-orcein stain

The remarkable definition in the organelle structure was surprising. Aceto-orcein binds DNA, so what would produce such well-defined structures that contain DNA. How about chloroplasts?

Plagiomnium ellipticum cells with visible chloroplasts.
Plagiomnium ellipticum cells with visible chloroplasts.

Let me know in the comments section:  chloroplasts or not? Alternative explanations?

Collaboratory Assessment

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Watch this session below or at the new KABTv page.

If you weren’t able to attend the 2014 KABT Fall Conference, I presented a session on how to provide students with group assessments which still hold each student accountable for their own individual learning. My experience using collaboration on assessments began after I read an article from Popular Science about a professor, Peter Nonacs, from UCLA who was trying to provide his students with a lesson in Game Theory. I have never been the most vocal advocate for tests in general, and final exams specifically, but even I was uncomfortable with the idea of every student taking the same test, and only answering one question. However, after some reflection, I began to realize that, had I properly done my job, my students shouldn’t need 50 or 100 multiple-choice questions to prove they had mastered the content. In my elective classes especially, my own personal goals were not to create student-experts in Microbiology, Environmental Science, or Prairie Ecology; what I wanted was to have students that could solve problems, think critically, evaluate complex issues, conduct investigations, and communicate science effectively. None of these goals necessitates the creation and existence of a multiple-choice test. So I decided to give it a try.

To sum up the experience: I loved it. My students, in 90 minutes, showed me everything I could have wished for and exceeded my own inflated expectations of their ability. In the same vein as the author of the article I had read, I wrote the most difficult questions I could. I gave my students advanced warning regarding the format of the exam. I encouraged my students to prove to me that, given a challenge unlike any they had faced before, they would rise to the occasion and perform creatively and with maturity beyond their years. I even gave them the email addresses and phone numbers of several experts I knew in our area, people that knew more about the subject than my students could possibly learn in their semester-long elective course. And they did everything I could have asked for. They wrote up a plan and agreed to stick to it. They all took a job and completed their individual tasks. They peer-edited, shared sources, and encouraged each other. They took their draft to other teachers in the building (Luckily the AP Government and Economics teachers were on their plan periods), and asked them to contribute a quote for their final paper and asked for feedback. And they completed the assignment on time, with smiles on their faces. This may come as a surprise, but a smile is not the normal response I receive at the end of an exam.

But the best part? My “best” student and my “worst” both told me the same thing after class. They said that it was the hardest, best test they had ever taken, and they thought that it would prepare them to be successful after high school. And that’s the point, isn’t it? Our students are like our own children, and we want them to have the best possible chance to be successful once they leave our classrooms.  The current assessment model is unrealistic. After students complete a traditional 4-year college education, very few people have to pass a multiple choice exam in their jobs on a regular basis. Perhaps for licensing purposes, but not for any other reason that I have ever experienced. If they want to advance, they need to be able to work in groups, finish their assigned tasks, solve problems, present their information, and complete difficult jobs that have no known solutions. And if they’ve never practiced that before they encounter that situation, how likely are they to succeed?

At the end of this post, I have attached the original questions which I used in my Environmental Science course that first year. I encourage you to read the original Popular Science article, then use my questions, adapt them, or ignore them and make your own even-better questions for your students. Even if they fail, the teachable moment will be a powerful one, and it can be a lesson that sticks with them for years to come. And besides, Dr. Nonacs isn’t kidding: their faces are priceless when you first describe the test to them.

If you take the leap, let me know how it goes; I can’t wait to hear about it!

Drew Ising can be reached at (email), @Mr_Ising (Twitter) or at 920-Ising-Ed (SMS).

EnvEco_FinalQuestions_KABT (PDF)

EnvEco_FinalQuestions_KABT (DOCX)

KABT_CollaboratoryExams (Conference Presentation, PDF)

AvidaEd additional resources

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I attached a few documents that should be helpful in understanding my presentation about using AvidaEd in conjunction with phylogenetics programs.

Helpful formatting notes for using AvidaEd and phylogenetics  –> this file details each step of isolating Avida individuals, translating their genomes, and inputting them into the phylogeny site.

Also, the free download of AvidaEd is available here:

I used this link for to convert the genomes from excel into a FASTA format:

And finally, here is the link to the phylogentics site I used:

final generation gene sequences FASTA –> Here are some genomes already converted into the FASTA format in case you wanted to play around using the phylogeny site!  I would encourage playing around with the different settings on this site; some methods may produce more accurate phylogenies!

I hope that my presentation was helpful and encourages new uses of AvidaEd technology in the classroom.  While there are some minor formatting and computing skills necessary for using these programs, I think that it is a really awesome application and example of Evolution and Phylogentics.  Please feel free to contact me at if you have any questions about my project or how to use these programs!

Kansas Association of Biology Teachers' News and Resources